From the archives: Why simple living and minimalist lifestyles need to be more inclusive

While I’m away for the summer, I’m dipping into the Our Story Time archives and sharing some of my most popular pieces for those of you new to Our Story Time, and who may have missed these, and also for those of you who have been beloved readers for a while and might enjoy remembering the pieces I’ve written. When I am back, I will be publishing a long essay on reading more inclusively - so see this as a refresher. This post first appeared in November, 2018.

Inclusivity in simple living and minimalist lifestyles. More on my blog, Our Story Time www.ourstorytime.co.uk

I don’t call myself a minimalist but I like the notion of simplicity. My version of it is, well, pretty simple. I am appreciative of any effort to make the running around of daily life a little less chaotic. And I’m curious about how other people do it; the streamlined homes that are functional and not merely decorative; the pared-down capsule wardrobes. I enjoy reading about simple living. I have my favourites on the subject. I even sometimes try to write about it too.

But lately, I have found and felt that other people’s versions of simplicity or minimalism or slow living have started to look the same. Those streamlined homes, again; those pared-down capsule wardrobes; those lonely landscapes of sameness.

Sameness breeds sameness and in all that sameness there’s no room for difference. And by difference, what I really mean is: diversity. Is there room for people of different colours and backgrounds to choose to participate in this privileged and nice-looking lifestyle of less where people willingly give up what they have spent money on? Is there enough room for different efforts and different stories to be noticed? For different voices to be heard? I’m not sure.

I’m noticing this lack of inclusion more and more, not just in pretty pictures which perpetuate this certain kind of lifestyle for a certain kind of person, but also in magazines and podcasts that explore the same concepts of lifestyle and simplicity and creativity, and everything that goes hand in hand with that, too.

There is spirit and sisterly community shared between friends who appear to already know each other (and this is wonderful for them) but as someone who has often if not always been in the position of an observer, on the edges looking in by virtue of my name and my background, it also seems closed off - even if it is entirely unwittingly so. I have felt this whole vibe to be like an outdated elite girls’ school clique. In angrier moments, it has made me furious. I wonder, sometimes, what on earth I am trying to achieve and why.

In 2014, Kinfolk was called out for its lack of inclusivity. In an interview with The New York Times, one of the Kinfolk founders reportedly referred to the magazine’s lack of racial diversity as an:

“unfortunate oversight, not meant to signal that the Kinfolk lifestyle was for only young, willowy white people. He said: "We’re about living with intention, thinking about what you’re doing and trying to enjoy the smaller things, like a meal, a conversation, time out with friends. That’s what we’re focused on, and obviously anyone has access to that.” He paused. “Well,” he said, “at least most people.”

Kinfolk’s latest issue features interviews with political artist Shirin Neshat and author Elif Shafak. But it’s still an overwhelmingly bleak monoculture. I too believe in living with intention, but the Kinfolk lifestyle does not speak to me, nor to so many other women from black or ethnic minority backgrounds and also white and mixed backgrounds with whom I’ve had these conversations in private. I know many people will say that they don’t read Kinfolk either, but I use it here merely as an example. For there are still so many publications and so many people that have made the same “unfortunate oversight.”

My career started in newspapers; I know full well the reality of the lack of diversity in the media. I know the figures off by heart: British journalism is 94% white and 55% male (I remember when that study came out). I have spent the last few months researching the sort of publications I might like to write for. While the lifestyle magazines that I’ve been researching often if not always have brilliantly strong all-female editorial teams (and I am talking about both independent and mainstream titles here), it is still sad but worse, worrying, to see that when it comes to inclusivity of writers of colour, there simply isn’t any or if there is, it is minimal at best. This then trickles into the content too - where are the non-white interviewees? Where are their stories of how they started their businesses or created their beautiful homes or found their creative callings or raise their beautiful children? And so the myth of this beautiful lifestyle continues to flow, only accessible to a privileged few who have the means, the money, the background to do so.

When we make the effort to speak to people with different voices and different backgrounds, something special happens, even when we do not reference our difference continually.

We hear new stories, stories that share experiences you or I may not have ever felt before. For a moment, we may even see the world differently. We understand new perspectives and new ways of thinking.

We proceed, with a little more compassion.

These are the stories that are worth including, worth making space for. These are the stories that, personally, I find far more inspiring than stories of sameness.

These are the stories that add to the richness of the world, that help us empathise, understand, connect with one another.

If sameness breeds sameness, diversity breeds creativity.

I have scrolled through countless contributor lists in lifestyle publications where there are no writers of colour at all, no names that stand out like mine. I have ended up not pitching to these titles - not to make a point, but because these lists unsettle me, make me feel that my name in an email to an editor won’t stand a chance in the first place, even if it is subconsciously.

I was brought up being told I had to study and work three times harder than anyone else because of my Muslim name, because of being female, because of my Pakistani roots. And boy, did I work hard - hard enough to write for big newspapers, win awards for it and publish a book. And yet I carry this “three times harder” mantra inside me, all the time. I carry this. It cracks my heart to see that some magazines and blogs and podcasters and influencers can afford to simply not see how they let so many people like me down.

I am aware these might not be platforms that talk about politics and serious affairs; I know that. But one can write about pretty things and yet be purposeful. Each and every media platform - from a blog to a podcast to a publication, even a social media feed - has an opportunity to make a difference, no matter what subject or theme they pursue. They should strive. (I hasten to add, I have had encouraging conversations about just this with one editor who is ready and open to being more inclusive).

And so, in my striving to make things a little better, here are a few things that have been on my mind and four very simple ways to consciously make room for different voices from different people, with specific reference to this curated lifestyle world. Incidentally, I have thought long and hard before writing any of this, above or below.

If you like the notion of living with less, if you believe that it somehow helps you to live a better life, then perhaps my thoughts might lead you to conclude that living simply also means living consciously and making space to think of others, too.

Four ways to be more inclusive in the lifestyle niche of minimal, simple living:

1. INTERVIEW OUTSIDE YOUR CIRCLE

If you have your own website, magazine or podcast, please don’t just only ever interview your friends, or people that look or sound like them. Why not take the opportunity to stand out in your chosen platform? In journalism, we look for something new. Yet in blogs and podcasts, so much I am hearing and reading is so very familiar. From an editorial perspective, this could be considered unoriginal. Consider featuring new voices from people of different backgrounds whose stories perhaps we haven’t heard many times before. Why not give those voices the support and a platform to be known a little more, instead of choosing already well-established voices who don’t necessarily always need the publicity or the chance to talk at length about themselves? This is not meant to cause upset. I love hearing everyone’s stories and I’m grateful to have been interviewed for podcasts too. But let’s hear some new voices, not just the same ones. A mix of voices is good. A mix of voices is rich. Find those voices and support those who do it so well.

2. AMPLIFY MANY VOICES

Equally, don’t just support the one or two ethnic minority or black women you can think of because you either already know them or because they’re already prominent on social media. Rida put this powerfully in her podcast with Lucy Lucraft: “It isn’t enough to jump behind just the one person you know.” This happens all the time. Can you think bigger? Can you be kinder? Can you be more generous, more supportive towards and of others? Or must we still try three times harder to be noticed?

3. DIVERSIFY YOUR FEEDS AND READ

You might be wondering where to find these people and women of colour who have such stories and richness and an entirely new perspective on life in all its facets to share because of their origins and experiences. They’re not going to pop up in your recommended follows. You will have to do your own reading and do your own research. In the kindest way possible, I’m not here to provide a ready-made list of South Asian women or Muslim women or black women to help you get started. I’ve been asked this before, by no doubt well-meaning folks. But if I can find people like you, and make the effort to reach out personally (I do this; it is often the only way I can place my writing in front of people), then you can find people like me. Research. Read. Read. Read. Read the magazines you’ve never read before. Try here, here and here for starters.

4. BE FAIR. SEE THE WHOLE. GIVE GRACE.

Give everyone the same grace. By all means, go ahead and share this piece because it is a piece about diversity. I am immensely grateful to you for that, and I know and trust many of you will. But then share another piece simply because it’s beautifully written. Engage when we talk about race, yes. But then engage when we talk about our homes or our recipes or our children too. Engage when we’re simply being us. Don’t switch off or unfollow just because we don’t always talk about our identities all the time. Give the same space, the same balance, the same grace that you would to yourself.

FURTHER READING

Is Minimalism for Black People?

How to stand up for inclusion in design

Glossies so white: the data that reveals the problem with British magazine covers

Zine Queens: how women’s magazines found new life via indie publishing

Did you know you can still buy and download Postcards Home, my summer writing course? It’s available to purchase until the end of August, to print off or upload onto your device and take with you on holiday. For summer writing inspiration, read more about my summer writing course.



On Europe

A little boy, reaching up at a world map. Trying to understand Brexit. More on my blog, Our Story Time.

This blog post is an edited version of an essay that appeared in Afterthoughts, my monthly letter to my subscribers. With the EU elections last week it felt like a good time to share this again. My inbox went wild after I originally sent this went out, with so many people telling me they felt the same way, so I thought I’d share it here. If you’d like to sign up to Afterthoughts, you can do so here.

Brexit is confusing me.

It’s happening, it’s not happening; I don’t know.

I simply can’t understand it, or rather, I can’t understand how we got here, to this point of calamity. To this sort of indifference we are verging on, the point at which we begin to stop caring because it’s white noise we’ve learnt to get used to, because we’re glossing over the articles and turning the news channels and carrying on as normal because there’s no resolution in sight anyway.

We all thought this would never happen, but it did, and then Trump happened too. Good lord, 2016. But what does it all mean? Well, I don't know. Perhaps it was meant to happen this way all along; we just didn't see it, or didn't want to. Maybe all Brexit means is that we are incredibly naive. 

It's hard to fathom now but at university, as a wide-eyed literature undergrad, I joined the Young European Movement. We were hardly activists but we were inspired. We listened to lectures about Europe being a place of promise. We watched French movies like L'Auberge Espagnole and we lived for our Erasmus years and we wrote that quote - "Je suis français, espagnol, anglais, danois. Je suis pas un mais plusieurs. Je suis comme l'Europe,  je suis tout ça. Je suis un vrai bordel" - inside our planners, because we believed it. Because we wanted to. That quote - “I am French, Spanish, English, Danish. I’m not one but many. I’m like Europe, I’m all of that. I’m a complete mess” - was made for the Erasmus intake of 2002.


Back then, we wanted Britain to join the Euro, not because we truly understood what it meant economically but because we thought it symbolic in some generous, gesture of a way. To be a part of something.

Those undergraduate years inspired me to study European politics for my Masters at a place called Sciences-Po, a political science institute of some acclaim in Paris. I studied what I thought was going to be my future, Europe, while sat in the same halls that Macron, Mitterand, Sarkozy et tout and even Proust and Dior once studied in. (Honestly, I have no idea how I got in).

This was a place seeped in history, politics, privilege; the accomplishments of mostly men celebrated, though there were those of some women too. Though the elitism was not lost on me, at the time, I still thought it held promise; even for me, even though my background or my heritage had no reason to bring me there. I remember walking through those security-guarded gates and those grand halls often in a daze. I felt like I was a part of something, which was all I had ever wanted to feel.

But despite all that, despite what I thought I'd learnt and studied and understood about Europe then, it all means nothing now. Because how did we get to this point, this vrai bordel? I read the papers but can make neither head nor tails of who says what this time. It's as if the confusion is purposeful, designed to make us feel like it is out of our hands anyway.

But there is one thing that I have read lately that sort of does make sense to me, and I'll share it here, with no other remarks other than to say: I read this, I underlined it, I understand what she means. For in her essay, Fences: A Brexit Diary, found in her collection Feel Free, Zadie Smith writes: 

Much has been written since about the shockingly irresponsible behaviour of both David Cameron and Boris Johnson.... That two supposedly well-educated men, who have presumably read their British history, could with such utter recklessness throw into hazard a hard-won union of three hundred years’ standing - in order to satisfy their own professional ambitions - appeared that morning a larger crime to me, than the severing of the decades-long European pact that actually prompted it all.”


Such utter recklessness.

We thought it would never happen, and yet it did. So, tell me, what does that say about us, that we never saw this coming? 

Reflections on inclusivity

an open door in a brick wall leading to a courtyard of fairy lights

It has been over three months since I wrote this: Why Simple Living And Minimalist Lifestyles Need To Be More Inclusive. In between the poetic prose you might stumble upon on my blog, I also wrote something important that made people think. So much has happened since, mostly around Instagram, that I wanted to take a moment to consider what it all means.

It took a lot for me to put that piece out there. After it went live, I picked up my phone and saw all my notifications roll in. It felt like my hand was stuck to a block of ice, skinning off the tips of my fingers and stinging my palm. I had no idea how people would react. As a measure of this nervousness: I used to come on Stories every single day talking quite happily about this, that or the other. I haven’t spoken on Stories since the day after I posted my original inclusivity piece three months ago now.

But that doesn’t matter. That piece was not just about me. It was about speaking up for people like me, from different backgrounds, heritage and colour, who sometimes find it hard to nudge a foot in doors which seem to open easily for others. It happens in traditional media all the time. It also happens in social media; we know that, now, more than ever.

***

There’s a belief that was instilled in me as a child, which is that true goodness is the kind of goodness that doesn’t shout about it all the time, because you’re doing it from your heart, not for appearances’ sake. My parents used to say this about things like giving to charity, and so I guess, having been brought up this way, it’s normal I believe it too.

I was thinking about this, about doing things from your heart and not for the sake of appearances, when the lack of inclusivity in lifestyle niches was fired up again in the crafting and making circles back in January and then more recently, regarding representation in the social media feeds of one particular slow living/ slow fashion brand. So many people spoke out, it felt like Instagram was on fire.

Those days were strange and furious and they were also deeply hurtful and outright offensive for so many people, many of whom I consider to be online friends. Now those days have passed and things are relatively calm, I find myself wondering where everyone is and what they are doing. I’ve been wondering if lessons that were learnt on Instagram because of the hard work of a dedicated few, might be spilling into our offline life too.

Being inclusive, standing up for fairness and believing in change doesn’t always have to mean putting yourself in the line of confrontation if that’s not what you feel you can do. I understand that because I too have chosen on occasion to show my support in other, quieter and less visible ways behind the scenes - so then you might keep an eye out for, say, offensive messages that need reporting urgently, or maybe you’ll check in with those brave voices on the receiving end of vile attacks instead and ask them what they need. This is human. Caring is human. This matters too, more than putting out a post because you feel you should.

When the issue of representation and inclusivity came to a head on Instagram in late January, someone asked me: “Would we even be talking about this if we were to meet?” and I guess, maybe, no. It’s easier to write about issues so deep and complex because writing brings perspective whereas, in person the chance to be misunderstood is greater when there’s no distance between you (or at least, in my experience).

Even small changes in the way we think and act online could make a difference to the way we treat each other when we are right there, face-to-face and palm-to-palm, breathing in the same space. In time, these little acts might simply become habit, second nature. Small changes don’t always require big confrontations and they don’t always require validation either.

So if you can’t figure out what you want to do or say on social media when it comes to inclusivity, or feel you should say something because everyone else is - then don’t. You don’t have to say it just because. I would argue that what matters more is what you do in your life away from your phone. I would argue that while it’s great that you diversify your feeds, it matters more that you read important books and articles on race, or email your kid’s school to see what you can do to help make the books in their library more diverse, or correct your mother when she makes a stereotypical comment about black guys at the bus stop or make the effort to maybe talk to the mum at the school gates in the hijab who smiles at everyone, but no one actually ever includes.

***

Something else I was brought up to believe is that your intention matters (some of you might recognise this as an Islamic tenet) and I hold onto that too. I hold onto that, even if it sounds naive or like it’s not quite going far enough.

I am not sure if everyone’s wanting to do better has ended up into actual doing but I hold onto this belief that intention matters, even when I routinely see articles and blog posts promoting and linking to the same faces, the same friends, the same businesses, the same voices.

I hold onto that belief of intention even when I wryly notice those with influence who act as if only now after all this have I’ve earned the right to a response whereas before I didn’t. I don’t think I was ignored on purpose; I just wasn’t seen. Never mind. I know that believing in intention might not sound good enough, but I remain optimistic. I hold onto the belief of intention, because what is there without hope?

I’m willing to be patient and perhaps you’ll have noticed that small things are shifting and people are thinking. It’ll simply take time for circles to widen more generously in order to let others in. It will take time, too, for influential bloggers and podcasters to stop before they link to only share the work of their friends and the people they love but also then think: Who else can I get behind? Who else’s work can I share or promote, who doesn’t look like me? Who else is doing a brilliant job, but has to work harder to be seen because she happens to be of a different background? Who else’s voice may I amplify?

Time, that’s all.

***

I stand by everything I originally wrote. I still and will always believe that the more we listen to each other, the richer our everyday lives will be, even when it comes to social media which has such a hold on our lives and reinforces more negative stereotypes than we think in ways both subtle and strong.

Because - as I’ve written here before - I believe that when we make the effort to speak to people with different voices and different backgrounds, something special happens, even when we do not reference our difference continually.

We understand each other, the ups and the downs, a little more. Subconscious prejudices might one day disappear. We make connections. We might even make friends.

All of this is why I am passionate about connecting people to their writing voice (yes, I’m linking to my work), because the right, well-chosen and well-crafted words have the power to open minds and educate, yes, but also to enchant and inspire and to leave us wanting to hear more, know more, read more and more and more. Because, for a moment, lost in those sort of words, we may even begin to see the world a little differently.

Footnotes

The Problem With Performative Allyship

Redefine Pretty

#RevolveSoWhite

Representation Matters (She Flourished)